The Medieval Keys
By the 1500s the lower House of the Manx Parliament was known as the 24 Keys and met at Castle Rushen.
They met on an irregular basis and were not regarded as a permanent body but as a jury to be summoned when the Lord of Mann and his Deemsters (judges) required an opinion or help on matters such as law making and taxation.
Why are they called the Keys?
The precise origin of the title is unknown. One possible explanation is that the word ‘keys’ is derived from the Old Norse Kjosa meaning ‘chosen’. Another explanation is that English administrators during the 15th and 16th centuries were unable to pronounce the Gaelic Kiare-as-feed (four and twenty) and this was mispronounced as Keys. For most of the medieval period they were called the ’24’ or ‘the 24 of the land’.
The Role of the Keys
The earliest function of the Keys was to declare the ancient common or Breast law (laws recited from memory) with the Deemster, when any queries arose. Until 1577, the Keys ‘gave for law’ (interpreted) the common law. But from declaring the old laws to making new law was a natural development, and by 1610 their function as lawmakers was clearly recognised.
The earliest surviving record referring to the Keys dates from 1422, after the granting of the Island to the Stanley family, who became the self-styled Kings and Lords of Mann.
The 24 members of the Keys represented the whole Island with 4 members coming from each sheading (a Norse land division that still forms the basis of the Island’s political constituencies).
By the late 1500s the Keys were regarded as “the worthiest men” and recommended their own replacement members when vacancies occurred. But the final decision regarding the choice of new members of the Keys was made by the Lord of Mann. The House of Keys remained a self-elected body until 1866. Since that time the Keys have been the elected representatives of the people.
Awatercolour detail from a plan of Castle Rushen by S.Fane, entitled ‘Castle Rushen – A North-Eastern view thereof, taken from the river’ c1760.
Castle Rushen was a garrison and centre of the Island’s administration for the Lord of Mann and an early meeting place of the Keys.